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Inmates Are Among Most Vulnerable In The Pandemic. When Will They Get Vaccinated?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

From the earliest days of the pandemic, we knew that one of the most dangerous places to be is group housing. Of course, that includes nursing homes. People in those facilities are starting to get vaccinated right now. But it also includes jails, prisons, detention centers. And the millions of people in those facilities are wondering when the vaccine will get inside those fortified walls.

ROBBIE DENNIS: You're three feet apart from each other, every bed. You don't even have three feet. It's a little aisle that you have between beds. You're head-to-head and three feet apart. Your head is against another inmate's head.

SHAPIRO: When Robbie Dennis was transferred to the Louisiana prison known as Angola, it was March, just about a week after the first reported coronavirus case in the state. His first stop was two weeks of quarantine, locked in a cell 23 hours a day. And as bad as that kind of isolation sounds, Dennis embraced it as a measure of security.

DENNIS: I felt like I was safe. I was in the safest place possible, being in the confinement area of the prison. So I embraced that situation.

SHAPIRO: Dennis was 46 with no underlying health conditions. He had almost finished serving his five years for possessing cocaine. If he could survive to August, he'd be reunited with his wife and five kids in the outside world.

DENNIS: Like I told my wife, I said, I think I'm in a better position to be here than to be out there moving around in general population for my own safety.

SHAPIRO: But then he did have to enter the general prison population, and he says nobody had masks for months. When they finally arrived in June or July, people didn't wear them. The masks tied around the back of the neck, and Dennis says people were afraid of getting strangled.

DENNIS: It was fear for the wearer because you're in a prison. I don't - I mean, I don't want to be at a disadvantage when somebody's going to grab something, and I have something tied around my neck. So it was - the masks was a disaster. Nobody would wear it because of that reason.

SHAPIRO: At least 16 inmates at Angola have died of COVID-19. That's the official number, though the actual tally could be higher. Dennis only ever heard about it through word of mouth.

DENNIS: And you're only going to hear that because you got inmates doing that job. Those inmates got to bury that person if he's not - if he don't have nowhere to go home to. Those inmates work in the infirmary, and you may know those inmates, so word travel.

SHAPIRO: The U.S. incarcerates almost 2.3 million people, far more per capita than any other country. And now that there's a vaccine, the CDC is coming up with recommendations on who should get prioritized. They've already said frontline health care workers and nursing home residents should be in a first group. This weekend, an advisory committee will decide who should be in the next round and whether that group includes people behind bars. Since the summer, public health experts have been saying that incarcerated people should be a high priority. Dr. Tom Inglesby directs the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

TOM INGLESBY: If you look at the places with the largest outbreaks across the country, almost all of the top 40 are in correctional facilities.

SHAPIRO: To put that into context, there have been 66 prison outbreaks of a thousand people or more. The three worst prison coronavirus outbreaks infected more than 3,000 people each. Compare that to meatpacking plants, where there have been only two outbreaks of more than a thousand cases. Based on the science alone, Inglesby says this should not be controversial.

INGLESBY: In terms of public health risks and priorities, I think this is straightforward public health assessment and response. All the conditions that we think about in terms of trying to control COVID, they're all kind of moving in the wrong direction in these facilities. And they basically are the perfect conditions for superspreading events.

SHAPIRO: Professor Pamela Metzger directs the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at Southern Methodist University's law school in Dallas.

PAMELA METZGER: Prisons are vectors of disease, as are jails. They are filled with people who enter with pre-existing health conditions, many of which may be undiagnosed. You have cramped living conditions with exceptionally poor nutrition. Ventilation is problematic in many places. You have limited access to medical care. And all of those conditions mean that jails and prisons are breeding grounds for illness and disease long before you add something highly contagious and deadly like COVID-19.

SHAPIRO: And so that's why nationally, incarcerated people are about five times more likely than the general public to test positive for the coronavirus. And even adjusting for age, they're more than twice as likely to die from the disease. At Angola, Robbie Dennis was very aware of that.

DENNIS: Just because, you know, you have a life sentence don't mean you're sentenced to death.

SHAPIRO: And the virus doesn't stop at the razor wire. When relatives visit their loved ones behind bars, when workers go home at the end of the day or when people get released, the coronavirus goes with them. There have been spikes in communities around jails and prisons.

All the way back in March, the Justice Department recognized these issues, and Attorney General Bill Barr put out a memo telling federal prisons to consider releasing people to home confinement. Some people got out, like President Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. He was sent home in May, almost two years into his seven-and-a-half-year sentence for fraud and conspiracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Show us your bracelet.

SHAPIRO: A reporter there shouting show us your bracelet as Manafort walks out of the minimum-security prison in Pennsylvania to home confinement. In Louisiana, the state set up a panel to consider people for early release. Robbie Dennis followed that news story closely.

DENNIS: I followed it heavy. I kept the newspaper report. I felt like the committee, they never even considered nobody.

SHAPIRO: When the panel was suspended in June, fewer than 70 people had been released out of around 50,000 incarcerated people in Louisiana. The state locks up more people per capita than any other. Alanah Odoms is executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana.

ALANAH ODOMS: You know, you look at the efforts that have happened, for example, in New Jersey and New York, where you've seen thousands of people decarcerated (ph) as a result of a recognition that these folks don't pose a threat to anyone's safety - not their own. They're within a certain period of time where they would have otherwise been released anyway, perhaps six months or eight months or a year. And so medically vulnerable, non-violent folks who have not committed sex offences or other offences have been decarcerated. We've made those same calls for release in the state of Louisiana to no avail.

SHAPIRO: Now the vaccine is here. And no matter what the CDC recommends, each state and federal agency will ultimately make its own decisions about who gets it when. And although scientists generally agree that incarcerated people should get the vaccine early, the politics are a different matter. Take Colorado. According to data compiled by the Marshall Project and AP, Colorado's prisons have a coronavirus infection rate seven times the state overall. In October, Colorado put out a draft proposal that followed the public health recommendations from Johns Hopkins prioritizing incarcerated people for the vaccine. Inmates would get vaccinated after frontline health care workers, at the same time as people in retirement communities, before healthy older adults. Then the pressure campaign started.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S NEWSROOM")

SANDRA SMITH: And to the backlash now over Colorado's decision to prioritize prisoners for receiving the COVID vaccine first. The state...

SHAPIRO: This was Fox News on December 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICA'S NEWSROOM")

SMITH: ...Which means convicted murderers will get immunized before grandmothers. Joining us now...

SHAPIRO: Colorado's Democratic governor, Jared Polis, quickly backtracked.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED POLIS: So there's no way it's going to go to prisoners before it goes to people who haven't committed any crimes. That's obvious. So those are...

SHAPIRO: At this press conference, he said the state's draft proposal on vaccines would be amended.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POLIS: As we do 65 and up, I would think that would include prisoners that are in that category. But the vast majority of people 65 and up are free. It'll first...

SHAPIRO: Sure enough, when Colorado's updated guidance came out, correctional staff were in the high-priority group. Incarcerated people were not. Professor Sharon Dolovich directs UCLA's Prison Law and Policy Program.

SHARON DOLOVICH: What you have is, on the one hand, a really urgent public health need to prioritize both correctional staff and incarcerated people. And on the other hand, you have at least four decades of tough-on-crime rhetoric, which has primed the American public to think of people in custody as somehow less than human and less deserving, even though in this particular instance, we know well that they are at a much greater risk of getting infected and dying from the virus than people who are outside prison.

SHAPIRO: Even some people who work in these facilities think putting these groups on equal footing makes sense.

BYRON OSBORN: I think the priority level would be the same. I don't necessarily think the staff should get it before the prisoners or vice versa.

SHAPIRO: Byron Osborn is president of the Michigan Corrections Organization, the union in that state. He's been a corrections officer for 26 years.

OSBORN: I think anybody that's at a correctional setting, whether it's the employees or the population, because we're all together all the time. We're shoulder to shoulder with these folks. We work in there. They live in there.

SHAPIRO: Michigan has been dealing with an explosion of coronavirus cases, and that's especially true behind bars. At the Chippewa Correctional Facility where Osborn works now, more than 800 inmates have gotten COVID-19, according to state officials. And more than 500 of those cases are considered active. That doesn't include staff.

OSBORN: Anybody who's been paying attention to the outbreaks in the correctional system in Michigan for the past several months realizes this has been a significant disruption to the operation of these correctional facilities. It's cost the state a ton of money in testing. I can't believe anybody would not be able to rationalize that those two groups of people would be in that second tier of people that are being provided the vaccine.

SHAPIRO: According to the Prison Policy Initiative, only six states have prioritized incarcerated people to get vaccines as early in the process as public health officials have urged. More than 20 states are prioritizing corrections staff before inmates. That's the approach the Federal Bureau of Prisons is taking, too. The decision the CDC advisory committee makes this weekend could change the calculation in some states, depending on what the group recommends.

In August, Robbie Dennis was released from prison in Louisiana. His wife picked him up from Angola, and the thing he wanted most was to go home and hug his five boys for the first time in years. But he knew the coronavirus was all over Angola, and he didn't know his own status. So his wife took him to get a test.

DENNIS: Because she felt like - I felt like it was a must because I didn't know my own fate being released because I have never been - I had never been tested.

SHAPIRO: It took him four days to get the result. It was negative. And then he went home and hugged his kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "LEARNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.